Coach not worried about long layoff

UNIVERSITY PARK – When the Penn State women’s basketball team takes the floor to open the NCAA tournament today, it will have been 16 days since its upset loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten quarterfinals.

Despite the long layoff, don’t expect any rust from the No. 14 Lady Lions when they face Wichita State at 12:30 p.m. in a first-round game at the Bryce Jordan Center.

“The tournament itself brings a different level of intensity,” said Penn State coach Coquese Washington at a news conference Saturday. “It’s March Madness. Everybody wants to be a part of it and everybody is talking about it. So, it’s not hard at all to get them focused and prepped because this is what the whole country is talking about right now.

“They’re excited and they’re intense and they’re ready to go out and play.”

Penn State (22-7) is the third seed in the Stanford Regional and facing the 14th-seed Shockers (26-6) for the first time in the program’s history.

In Sunday’s other game at the BJC, Dayton will face Florida in a 6 vs. 11 match-up. The winners will meet in a second-round game Tuesday.

For the Lady Lions, their break from action afforded them the chance to regroup after losing two of their past three games. The team allowed more than 90 points in both losses, including a 99-82 decision to the Buckeyes in Indianapolis.

In that game, Ohio State shot 62 percent from the field and connected on 10-of-18 3-pointers.

“We’ve spent a lot of time on defense,” said senior forward Ariel Edwards. “It’s definitely been a focus for us. The best teams play great defense and that’s something we’ve been working on.”

Added senior Talia East: “The emphasis on defense has just been to tune things up, to make sure someone helps out when it’s needed, to make sure we are talking. Communication is key. We are just making sure that we’re prepared.”

Wichita State is in the NCAA tournament as the regular season and tournament champions of the Missouri Valley Conference. The Shockers are led by junior guard Alex Harden, the team’s leading scorer (17.1 points per game) who twice has been named the Most Outstanding Player of the MVC tournament.

Wichita State set a school record for victories thanks in large part to a suffocating defense that has held opponents to 57.2 points per game. But the Shockers, who biggest presence inside is 6-foot-1 forward Michelle Price, will have to contend with a decidedly taller Lady Lions team.

“It would be great if we could take advantage of our size,” Washington said. “But you have to play the games as they come. Whatever happens, happens. But, we’d like to certainly let our size be a factor, especially on the backboard.”

Penn State, which lost at LSU in the second round last season, is making its fourth consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament and 25th overall.

The Lady Lions are playing host to first- and second-round games for the first time since 2011, when they returned to the NCAA tournament after a six-year absence. That year, as a sixth-seed, they beat Dayton before losing to DePaul to 75-73.

“That was our first NCAA tournament game,” senior Maggie Lucas said. “We’re as excited as ever, but I think we’re a lot more calm and we have that experience now. We’re a lot more relaxed and we feel pretty good going in to it.”

Washington said that experience will benefit the Lady Lions’ freshman, a group she described as “giddy” heading into Sunday’s game.

“When you ask [Lucas] and [Edwards] about their freshman year, nobody on the team had been to the NCAA tournament, so it was all new for everybody,” Washington said. “What is really good for this team is that the upperclassmen can help the freshman understand what’s going on and how things are going to go. That excitement that they have is good for the team.”